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Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou, known as Maya Angelou, was an author and poet. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was given credit for various plays, movies, and TV shows.
Her best-known memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), was the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman.
Angelou was widely known for her books and poetry, but she was also a prominent civil rights activist, dancer, actor, director and producer.
She was part of the Harlem Writers Guild where she connected with the growing number of young black artists and writers associated with the Civil Rights Movement.
She was good friends with author James Baldwin, whom she met in Paris in the 1950s. Along with editor Robert Loomis, Baldwin had challenged her to write an autobiography that could also be a piece of literature, mentioning that it was almost an impossible feat. That ‘challenge’ is what encouraged her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X in the 1960s:
She had joined a community she nicknamed “Revolutionist Returnees” while she was in Ghana and had become close with Malcolm X during that time. Once returning to the US, she helped him develop the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which unfortunately disbanded after his assassination shortly after.
After hearing Martin Luther King speak at a church in Harlem, she began working as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It is around this time that the two of them met. King said he was grateful for her contributions during her time there.
Martin Luther King was assassinated on Angelou’s birthday (April 4th) which made her stop celebrating her birthday for many years afterwards. Instead, every year for over 30 years, she sent flowers, called and/or met up with his widow Coretta Scott King, up until Coretta’s death in 2006.
In 1993, at the request of President Clinton, Angelou composed a poem to read at his inauguration. She wrote On the Pulse of the Morning and recited it during the live broadcast, making her only the second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. She later won a Grammy Award for the audio version (Best Spoken Word Album). She also won Grammy Awards for her works Phenomenal Woman (1995) and A Song Flung Up To Heaven (2002).
Angelou received over 30 honorary degrees and in 2010 President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
When Maya Angelou passed away, President Obama issued a statement, calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.” He went on to write that she “had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer.”